Digital age, economic woes: Can the post office survive?

By Shabtai Gold, dpa

SWITZERLAND — E-mail, Internet bill paying and other electric substitutes had already been hitting the world’s postal services hard when the global economic crisis struck, leading individuals and companies to cut back anywhere they could including in the mail.

“Some of our largest mailers are in financial services, catalogue sales, manufacturers,” said Lea Emerson, the head of the international division at the United States Postal Service (USPS). “Those are some of the ones hardest hit by crisis, and they are mailing much less.”

Data from the U.S. showed that starting in 2002 the classic letter began its decline, as people began to really migrate to the web, even for holiday cards and messages to family. In 2007, the volume of commercial mail also started to drop.

Since the global economic downturn went into full affect last year, airlines have been reporting drops in cargo demand, as fewer goods were being shipped around the world. Parcels, a central part of the postal services’ core business, are seeing similar hits.

One solution to stay relevant, said chief executive officer of Poste Italiane, Massimo Sarmi, was for postal services to build on the trust people have in them and embrace the digital age.

“My vision for the future is to be the third party to trust on the Internet,” Sarmi told the Germany Press Agency dpa on the sidelines of the Universal Postal Union’s annual meeting in Bern.

The post office could guarantee delivery of e-mails, protect and secure communication and verify that the sender and receiver are indeed who they claim to be. All this would allow business to take full advantage of the Internet and give the post office a place in the new world.

The USPS has also gone online, allowing customers to “click and ship,” meaning they could print their own barcode label, order a package pickup from home and never have to set foot inside the post office.